At one point in the election campaign, a young boy asked Donald Trump if he was secretly Batman. Without blinking, the billionaire nodded: “I am Batman.”
Peter Serafinowicz is not Batman. He’s the Tick. And he seems to have lost his mind. He’s waving a pen at me, head bobbing, with an open mouthed smile that shows too many teeth. He inhales every now and again like he’s getting ready to speak, but he never does.
It’s disconcerting, but then again press junkets are hell, sheer hell, sheer bloody actual hell for all involved. Dozens of journalists queue outside a hotel room, where jet lagged stars answer the same questions over and over again – or worse, if the interview is being taped for the Internet, they play games or sing songs, like hostesses in Japanese bars. I’ve had exhausted supervillains break down in tears, trying to remember the funniest prank on set. I’ve seen trained journalists holding Hungry Hungry Hippos. That night, the junket will pack up and moves onto the next city, the next country, the next movie in the cinematic franchise – and in every hotel room, they’ll find journalists making this exact face.
“They’re doing this hilarious silent laughter that’s meant to be encouraging in some way, but it freaks me out,” he explains. “I have to very politely say, ‘excuse me, can you not do that because I find it disturbing, please thank you.’
Serafinowicz has been a constant on screen for decades, but this is the first time he’s been the rubber-suited frontman for a major superhero franchise. Amazon know they’ve got something special in The Tick and are pushing it hard. He has just emerged from the maelstrom of San Diego’s Comic-Con and seems shell-shocked.
“It’s the volume of everything. I’ve never been the star of something big. I did have my own show, and I’ve done junkets – the last was Spy with Melissa McCarthy, and there was quite a bit of publicity for that. But as a supporting character, you’re not carrying the entire thing.”
Serafinowicz is a tall man who has never been a massive star, but he is ubiquitous.
“Two things can happen: you can be in a shitty film, but you can be ‘Oh! That guy!’ Or you can be in a great film and be ‘Oh. That guy.’”
He has been ‘that guy’ in almost everything you can name, and is at least connected to everything else. He’s married to Sarah Alexander (Coupling), his brother James worked on Brass Eye, his sister Helen created Motherland and is, in turn, married to Graham Linehan. He’s a frequent collaborator with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright – usually as slightly intimidating alpha males in the likes of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead. In America, he’s close to the Arrested Development clique, especially Will ‘Lego Batman’ Arnett: “He’s a taller, deeper voiced, better looking, funnier version of me. When I first met him, he had plastered the walls of his trailer in Spaced and Shaun of the Dead posters. He’s ******* brilliant.”
And that’s only the comedy world. Serafinowicz breached Marvel’s superhero blockbusters with Guardians of the Galaxy. Before that he was there at the birth of modern nerd culture – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where he provided the voice of baddie Darth Maul. Despite the critical drubbing, Episode 1 established the ideas of expanded universes, massive conventions and ‘fandoms’ that have changed the industry.
“My contribution to that universe is miniscule,” he demurs. “The first Star Wars is my favourite film of all time, but there have been some bad films… It’s a testament to the power of George Lucas’s imagination that the universe continues to thrive.”
So what about those rumours that Darth Maul might return to fight Ewan Macgregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi in a new spin-off movie?
“Of course I would be up for that!”
The Tick is perfect for him. “I was a nerd when I was a kid,” he explains, “but my thing was less superheroes than comedy.” At Comic-Con, he ‘geeked out’ over meeting John Bradley-West from Game of Thrones, because his performance reminds him of “Buster Keaton or Inspector Closeau, it’s that funny.” He bonded with his American co-star Griffin Newman over old copies of Mad Magazine, and sadly remembers hearing of the death of Adam West, star of the classic 1960s Batman series. “I loved Adam West,” he says, “I interviewed him once and he recorded a little message for my then five year old son. Such a lovely man.” It’s easy to forget, but West’s Batman was a wry send-up – the stentorian voice of reason, apparently unaware that he’s wearing a Hallowe’en costume.
“He showed superheroes do have a sense of humour, that they are actually totally surreal.”
This version of The Tick is darker – a reflection that comic books are now for adults who collect action figures – but the joke is the same. The Tick is a force of moral certainty and gleaming insanity. In rubber antennae.
“It’s a theme in a lot of stuff that I’ve done: ‘Mr Important’. The guy who turns up and goes ‘I’m Mr Important and I know everything and you have to listen to what I say’ And how absurd that is. I just find it really, really funny.”
In many ways (not just the height) Serafinowicz is the modern John Cleese, the seeming face of authority revealed to be ridiculous. Our modern authority figures are no longer bureaucrats, they’re superheroes. Look Around You – a hallucinogenic parody of Tomorrow’s World written with Robert Popper – is probably ‘Mr Important’s masterpiece, but lately he has found a new muse.
“The traditional way you make fun of somebody in authority is you exaggerate one of their traits, caricature him, take things to extremes,” he says. “But Trump is such a caricature, those weapons are useless. He’s made himself parody proof, unlampoonable.”
Serafinowicz’s wildly popular retort is simply repeating the president’s own speeches, word for word, in a silly voice. Serafinowicz has always filled his spare time with daft wee projects – “when I was 16 I had a little four track recorder, and just did my own little thing, impressions and such. I sent it to Radio 4 and got my first job.” His experiments with YouTube were some of the first viral videos, and led to The Peter Serafinowicz Show on BBC2 in 2007. Although it was short lived, the sketches were designed to live forever online. “TV is so different now, people watch it in such a different way, I don’t know where sketch shows have a home,” he says. “Can you imagine a sketch show on Netflix?” Like Scottish comedian Limmy, he now punts out ideas on social media as and when they strike him.
Hence, ‘Sassy Trump’.
“I was watching one of his victory speeches and he was so camp and bitchy, so I gave him a cross between Liberace and Paul Lind from Bewitched,” he explains, “and that was the voice that seemed to fit everything.”
Sassy Trump has covered everything from Nazi violence to the quality of hairspray. It’s silly and chilling at the same time. “For most of my life until about two years ago, I had no interest in politics. It wasn’t intentional to draw attention to his words by dubbing over them,” he admits, “that was accidental, or maybe instinctual.”
In fact, Serafinowicz seems most baffled that people listen to him at all. “I’m not an authority figure,” he insists. In fact, he’s currently fleshing out an idea for a show – a failed British actor becomes a Shakespearean drama teacher in the US, purely because “when you’re in America and you have a British accent it’s all “Oh well helloooo, aren’t you fancy?”.
It’s provisionally titled, of course, ‘Mr Important’.
Serafinowicz is now Mr Important, the big star with goblin-faced journalists hanging on his every word. Yet when our real authority figures have gone mad, and our fictional authority figures wear spandex, Serafinowicz’s instinct for the Mr Importants of the world feels necessary. In fact, it’s almost heroic.
The Tick season 1, part 1 is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 25th August